Establishing Family Traditions

Did your family have special little family traditions when you were growing up? If you have raised a family, did you incorporate special traditions into the culture of your family? If so, have any of those family traditions been carried on by your grown children in their families? Or, if you now have a young family of your own, have you given any thought to establishing and cultivating family traditions?

I ask those questions because I like to hear about traditions within families. Beyond that, I’d like to encourage those of you who do not have family traditions to give some thought to this subject. So let’s talk about it....

What Are Family Traditions?
Family traditions are things your whole family experience and enjoy together on a regular basis (i.e., yearly). Such traditions typically revolve around foods that are eaten or activities that everyone participates in. Good family traditions are something everyone looks forward to and, if the tradition is not experienced, everyone is disappointed.

Why Have Family Traditions?
Special traditions, unique to your family, are one of the spices of family life. Family traditions bring a richness and quality to family life that would otherwise not be there. Shared family traditions serve to bring families closer together and strengthen relationships.

A Sad Example
As I think back on my own family when growing up, I have a hard time recalling any family traditions. I suppose that Thanksgiving dinner would qualify. My mother was a great cook and put a lot into the meal. One of the things she always cooked for Thanksgiving was rutabaga—only for Thanksgiving. I happen to like rutabaga, but if that's the best family tradition I can come up with, that's kind of sad, don't you think?

It is typical for families to gather each year for a special meal at Thanksgiving and Christmas and it makes those gatherings a tradition. I think that is one of the best aspects of those holidays. But getting together and just sharing a meal, as good and important as that is, doesn’t qualify all by itself as the best example of a family tradition, at least not to my way of thinking.

A Better Example
I believe a family gathering around a holiday meal can certainly be an important part of a family tradition. The other part can be shared activities after the meal. For example, it was typical for my wife’s family (six kids, of which she is the youngest) to gather around the Thanksgiving table after dinner and play the card game, Pitch. I always thought that was neat. It sure beats gathering around the television for non-communicative, passive, brainless entertainment.

I can assure you that few families are going to have fond remembrances of the television shows they watched together the previous Thanksgiving after dinner. There is, however, a whole lot better chance they will remember the rousing game of cards. Those memories (good memories) of shared past family traditions are critically important part of the equation.

Something as simple as all taking a walk in the countryside after the meal can be a special family tradition.

An Even Better Example
When groups of people share in the work of completing a common task, it draws the group closer. When the work involves a whole family, doing something special and productive, with an enjoyable end, and this work is done on a periodic basis, it can be a great family tradition.

For example, I know of a family that gathers each fall to make apple butter in the historical manner. They prepare the apples and spices and put them in a big copper kettle over an outdoor fire. Together, they take turns stirring the boiling apple and spice mix down until it is the right finished consistency. Then they seal it in jars and everyone takes some home. The family is now older, and some live far away, but every year in the autumn, they travel home to make the apple butter, as is their family tradition.

When I heard about that family tradition, I almost bought a copper kettle and butter stirring paddle (Lehman’s has them). But copper kettles are downright expensive. I found used ones are cheaper on Ebay but have not pursued it. I may yet.

In My Own Family
In my family now, with my wife and three teenage boys, there are a few things we do that I think qualify as good family traditions. One example that comes to mind is making maple syrup in the backyard. This has been a fun and memorable family activity that we’ve done for many years.

We build a makeshift sugar shack, tap 25 maple trees in the woods behind our house, collect the sap into a 55-gallon barrel, and boil it down in a homemade, wood-fired evaporator. Stoking the fire, skimming foam off the boiling sap, and hanging out around the warm evaporator on a cold and blustery spring day is a great memory maker. And we sure do enjoy the quart jars of homemade maple syrup that are produced.

Making apple cider is also something of a tradition in my family. It is an activity we all work together at and, together, we enjoy the fruit of our labor.

Another family tradition is our annual 4th of July bonfire. It’s not a big event—just a couple families over for some food and fellowship. When it gets dark, we light a big pile of wood pallets that we’ve gathered free from the local lumberyard. We work together to make the pile of wood. We have fun. We make memories. And we look forward to doing it all over again the next year.

A Quirky Little Example
Some family traditions are more personal. For example, sons and fathers (or daughters and fathers) going hunting together. Then there are the offbeat traditions. For example, It is my tradition to give each of my sons a bottle of hot sauce every Christmas. Maybe that’s more like a custom. Whatever the case, quirky little things like that are akin to tradition, and can be fun.

Tradition of a Wealthy Family
I went to college with a girl that came from a family with money. Each year, during Christmas vacation from school, the family went on a skiing trip. The parents rented a place on or near a ski slope somewhere in the US. They enjoyed a fun week together skiing and doing whatever else you would do on a skiing vacation. The things you can do with money, eh?

I will never have that kind of money to spend in that manner. But if I did, instead of a skiing vacation, I’d opt to take the family to some sort of wilderness lodge or camp, on a lake, surrounded by woods and mountains. It's fun to dream.

But, as I think of it, my family has, for the past several years, taken something of a traditional family vacation. We make it a point to take a short agrarian-centered trip to a living history museum. I’ve written of our agrarian family vacations here in the past.

What Can You Do to Create Traditions?
It’s fun to imagine what we might do for a family tradition if... we had more money, or if... we had more free time, or if... our circumstances were somehow different than they are now. But the fact is, you don’t need a lot of money to establish and perpetuate family traditions. And the fact is, we always make time for the things that are most important to us. And where you are right now is as good a place as any to implement this family-strengthening strategy.

I hope this essay has encouraged you to give some serious thought to the matter of family traditions. I hope you will endeavor to deliberately implement traditions into the life of your family, especially if you now have young children.

If you have ideas or examples of family traditions, I invite you to share them here (using the comments feature) for the benefit and encouragement of us all. And I thank you for that.

In my next blog entry I will share with you about a very simple, fun, and inexpensive tradition that I started in my family 14 years ago.


Leigh said...

Your post is very right on. About the only tradition I can recall from growing up (besides holiday meals) was the trip on the train with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother the day after Thanksgiving. Every year we went to Marshall Fields in downtown Chicago. We would see the storybook windows, have lunch in the tea room, and wait in line forever to see Santa Claus.

My DH is more like you; he doesn't recall anything special, so traditions are something we made a conscious effort to develop when the kids were very young. They are both in college now, so things aren't the same around here, but I think those traditions helped us bond as a family, so that now we have good relationships with them as adult children.

Most of our traditions were yearly:

* - Thanksgiving poster - taped a large piece of drawing paper on the frig and everyone either wrote (if old enough) and/or drew everything they were thankful for.

* - Christmas nativity poster - another large piece of paper to draw a nativity. We'd divvy up the shepherds, sheep, wisemen, holy family, angels, etc., and we'd each be responsible for one thing each day of advent.

* - Advent - DH and I wrote a nightly family devotional with a new theme every week for each candle. We had Bible readings and carols/hymns every night until Christmas.

* - Christmas as a birthday celebration. Because both my kids had birthdays near the holidays, I explained to them that a birthday was a celebration of a person. On their birthdays, we celebrated them. On Christmas, we celebrated Jesus, and since it was His birthday, we focused on giving, rather than getting. Every year we had a "Birthday Gift for Jesus" which involved some aspect of ministry. The gifts we exchanged with each other were just little tokens of our love and thankfulness for one another.

* - Messianic Passover Seder - at "Easter" obviously :) instead of eggs, and baskets, and bunnies.

But the favorite one was weekly:

* - Friday night pizza / movie night - We don't watch television, so a once-a-week movie was a real treat. I made homemade pizza and dessert, and we actually got to have soda (also something we didn't do) and eat in front of the TV! This indulgence only happened once a week, but as our children grew up and became teens, they would forfeit Friday night activities with friends in order to not miss Pizza Night.

SzélsőFa said...

Each Christmas, on 24 December we decorate the Christmas tree together, all the four of us as a family and go for a walk to the nearby Church. We watch the alive Betlehem and walk home.
By the time we got home the 'angels' have already put the presents under the tree so that we, the family again, can find them.

Mr. Finkbeiner said...

This brings up so many traditions...
Every August, after the wheat harvest was done (I grew up on a 100 year old wheat farm in E Washington state), we would take a week off at a campground in Oregon. Our family did that over 4 generations. We went the same week, stayed in the same spots, did mostly the same things every year. Those are definitely the best memories of my life.
Our family also hosted the YEARLY family reunion every year on Memorial Day... still do.
Families move, kids (including me)grow up and move away, farming has changed and we don't do the family trip anymore.
My family and I have started a tradition on the 4th of July the "Independence Day Blast" in which we barbecue, host a shooting day at the range, speak against the king, and maybe go camping. I met my wife at the first "IDB" I put on, and we will do this for as long as we can. It has become a tradition.

Garth and Ildi Fout said...

Great post. My wife and have spent many nights talking about the importance of traditions in the family we are building. We have several and are always looing to add more.

-We have special foods at special times: Friday night pizza, Crepes on Christmas day, home-made donuts in the evenings sometimes, Thanksgiving dinner for several days after Thanksgiving, Ham for Christmas, and handmade cakes for birthdays, the children choose their favorite breakfast-lunch-dinner for their birthday, and more.

-Special times: Each child has a day of the week. On their day they get the mail, pray for dinner and I rub their back before they sleep. On their birthday I take them to their "special place", driving around to look at Christmas lights on Christmas Eve, Valentines the girls make bags for the boys and the boys make bags for the girls, Halloween we watch a movie and eat popcorn balls, we go camping each summer, we went to the beach 5 times each summer when we lived in CA :), and more.

-On Saturday's we all go the farmers market together and pick up our weekly foods and milk, every week (almost every) my wife takes the children on a field trip, and we are wanting to add more.

I enjoyed reading about your traditions. :)

Yeoman said...

One thing about traditions that makes them really special, in hindsight, is if they don't actually seem like a tradition, so much as a norm.

Indeed, I think that's a critical element of it. They need to have a purposeful sense of place, and fit into some deep seated natural norm. It's that which makes them a tradition.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hey Everyone,

Thanks for posting and sharing your family traditions and comments.

mr. finkbeiner--
I think that meeting one's future wife while shooting guns at a 4th of july celebration is just grand!

To anyone else who reads this post, please don't hesitate to share your family traditions....